Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 9. Robert Bage: Hermsprong

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

XIII. The Growth of the Later Novel

§ 9. Robert Bage: Hermsprong

Robert Bage, the last of this quartette, is differentiated from them by the fact that he is not unfrequently amusing, while the others seldom succeed in causing amusement. Sir Walter Scott has been sometimes found fault with, first, because he included some of Bage’s books in the “Ballantyne novels,” and, secondly, because he did not include what he himself, certainly with some inconsistency, allowed to be the best (which was also the last), Hermsprong or Man as he is not (1796). He also omitted the earlier Man as he is (1792) and The fair Syrian (1787) but gave the three others, Mount Henneth (1781), Barham Downs (1784) and James Wallace (1788). There is, perhaps, some ground for approving his practice at the expense of his precept. Bage, a quaker who became a free-thinker, was an active man of business, and did not take to novel-writing till he was advanced in life. As was said above, though there is much of Rousseau in him, there is almost more of Diderot, and even a good deal of Voltaire; and, it was from the latter two of the trio that he derived the free speech as well as free thinking for which even a critic and editor so wisely and honestly free from squeamishness as Scott had to apologise. As the titles of his two last novels show, and as the dates of them may explain, they are the most deeply imbued with purpose. Hermsprong himself, in fact—and one cannot but think must have been perceived to be by his author’s shrewdness—is something very like a caricature. He is “the natural man”—or, rather, the extremely unnatural one—who, somehow, sheds all tradition in religion, politics and morals; and who, as we may put it, in a combination of vernacularities, “comes all right out of his own head.” He is, also, very dull. Man as he is possesses rather more liveliness; but The fair Syrian (of which even the British museum seems to possess only a French translation) is duller than Hermsprong. James Wallace admits a good deal of sentimentality; but Mount Henneth and Barham Downs, though they have much which suggests the French substantive fatrasie and the French adjective saugrenu—though it is also quite clear, now and then, that Bage is simply following his great English predecessors, especially Fielding and Sterne—have, like Man as he is, and perhaps, in greater measure, a sort of unrefined liveliness, which carries them off, and which Scott, who was almost equally as good a judge of his kind of wares as a producer of them, no doubt recognised. Bage, in fact, when he leaves revolutionary politics and ethics on one side, and indulges what Scott did not scruple to call his “genius,” can give us people who are more of this world than the folk of almost any of his contemporaries in novel-writing, except Fanny Burney earlier, and Maria Edgeworth later. His breeding, his circumstances and, perhaps, his temper, were not such as to enable him to know quite what to do with these live personages—but they are there.